Youth Crisis

By Michael R. Lee, Ph.D.

Aging Production/Creative Services Directors should be worried. Consolidation has gone mad, and personnel in many areas such as General Managers, are dropping like flies. Radio has always been a youth-oriented business. There simply is little precedent for retaining forty-ish people in radio's creative community.

Until now. The most interesting development in the new nineties radio is its reliance on veterans to guide the imaging of its most successful stations. Instead of sending middle-aged Production Directors to that proverbial beach, radio is courting them as never before. Why?

It would be nice to think that radio's economic rulers are so enamored with veteran production talent that they are making the rewards fit the difficulty of the job. We all recognize that as poppycock in that veteran air talents (and their salaries) are being dumped as soon as their contracts permit. Young air talent or no air talent is the prevailing strategy.

Given all of these circumstances, the survival--nay, prosperity--of today's aging Production Directors is remarkable. Until you consider one thing. Radio management has done virtually nothing to find, train and nurture young Production Directors. Lost in the shuffle of wheeling and dealing, the glamour of stock splits and record revenue is the real business of radio. That business is entertaining listeners. Radio hasn't been doing a very good job of it lately. While managers fight for their own survival, they don't even think about the next great young producer.

But when those managers pay no attention, you get the 1996 worldwide Production Director shortage. It is a seller's market for savvy, skilled producers. The workloads are increasing, the talent level of young Production Directors as a group is stagnant at best and excellent imaging is more important to the success of a station than ever. There is not a lot of margin for error in today's radio machine, and veteran Production Directors feed that machine most efficiently.

Are overloaded managers solely responsible for the lack of good young Production Directors? It's doubtful. Radio is not exactly the trend-setting medium it once was. In the old days, radio held the promise of endless exciting music, of wit and imagination and, as a bonus, of groupies and great parties.

Today, radio has an image problem (e.g. antiquated programming, too much hype, poor audio quality, failure to identify songs adequately) with youthful audiences. Bright, creative young minds are much more attracted to other media (television/cable, films), new media (multimedia, computer software, video games) or not much of anything (slackers). Except for a relatively small but hardy audience for Alternative, music radio does not brim with relevance for today's youth.

And let's not delude ourselves. The youths of today are aware of radio's corporate stampede. You can bet they're not sitting around today's coffee table yearning for a chance to be a part of it. What's their fate if they enter radio production? A work deluge for sure. Poor entry pay and training. A severely devalued market for wit and imagination. That's not counting diminished groupies and parties. The only thing that has got cooler about radio production is digital workstations. And radio gets nearly zero credit for developing that phenomenon. The smartest youth of today have figured out how to own low-cost workstations of their own. They don't need radio for a technological fix.

In the meantime managers will wail about how Production Directors are overpaid, how they're prone to expressing their displeasure and that they're not as controllable as they should be. In the meantime veteran Production Directors have a chance to cash in on many years of toil at discount wages. Here's to your imminent future. Get everything you deserve. Because youth must be served eventually. And management will be counting on you to train your successor without ever putting your production work aside.

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